Stories and novels have always been written to incorporate a certain message or to inspire certain feelings in people. They combine various elements such as setting, plot, as well as characterization to bring out meaning in them. It goes without saying that stories have different contexts and themes, which may revolve around love, romance, courage, strength or determination. One of the stories that espouse strength and determination is Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”. This is a story of dedication, perseverance and love, where Phoenix Jackson is used to show determination and strength even in the face of tribulations and hardships (Glen, 47). It is noteworthy that the use of the name Phoenix is appropriate as it borrows from the mythological bird said to live for more than half a millennium, die in flames, as well as rise from the ashes.
Phoenix Jackson, like the mythological bird, takes a treacherous journey through the woods and focuses on getting medication for her grandson. She departs from her home to a city known as Natchez in search of this medication. Phoenix’s perception of the landscape becomes the key focus of the narrative (Warren, 540). It is worth noting that nature is described as an obstacle to her progress, as well as beautiful. Phoenix struggles against poor eyesight and extreme fatigue, as well as impediments such as barbed wire and thorn bushes. The symbolism and lyricism of the plot were compounded by the combined effects of Phoenix’s impaired vision, old age, and her poetic interpretation of the world (Warren, 547). For example, Phoenix mistakes a scarecrow for a ghost until she comes near it and touches its empty sleeve. At one time, Phoenix has a tense episode when she comes across a white hunter who at first appears friendly. He, however, makes an arrogant suggestion that Phoenix is probably going to see Santa Claus. Once he accidentally drops a nickel, Phoenix manages to distract him and pick the nickel even though she feels that she is stealing. Suddenly, the white hunter turns and points his gun at Phoenix. It is unclear what his true motivations are as Phoenix appears unafraid. Eventually, Phoenix manages to go her way unharmed and with the nickel. Finally, she gets to the Shining City of Natchez where she enters what is presumably a hospital. A nurse asks her questions pertaining to her son. Initially, she remains quiet about her son but later apologizes stating that her memory was failing her (Welty, 461). She, however, manages to make a heartfelt description of the grandson who had his throat injured after swallowing lye. Phoenix states that he is still alive and gets medicine for him, as well as another nickel with which she chooses to purchase a little windmill as a Christmas present for the son (Welty, 462).
It is worth noting that the grandson does not appear anywhere in the narrative. In essence, this may be an indication that the grandson has already died. In this case, Phoenix could be making the journey only as a way of deluding herself that the grandson is still alive even when he is dead. This is cemented by the fact that she often sees things that are not there.
Phoenix Jackson, nevertheless, emerges as an enduring character, a symbol of stamina, determination, perseverance and life, even in the face of death or hardships. Scholars have noted that the woman’s sheer fortitude in taking a long journey alone and on foot is testament to these qualities (Schmidt, 59). This bears some mythological significance or resemblance with her bird namesake, the Phoenix bird that symbolizes resurrection. In addition, the narrative gives the picture of Christian symbolism. This is especially considering that the story is set around the Christian season, which has led scholars to opine that the journey that Phoenix took was a symbol of religious or Christian pilgrimage (Howard, 47). In essence, the selfless concern that Phoenix has for her son is symbolic of the true spirit of self-sacrifice and giving. Scholars have also argued for a conflation of Christian and mythological interpretation of this story (Hicks, 39). They argue that the cycles of natural imagery along with Christian motifs of a rebirth revolve around the central theme of Christian faith where life emerges from death (Warren, 47).
As much as a large part of the story is founded on the symbolic and imagistic use of language, it is evident from the action of the entire plot that Phoenix Jackson is in direct conflict or disagreement with the outside world (Black, 45). This is a society that rests on the hands of white people who are seen to have little or no understanding and respect for the situation through which she is going. This is especially evident when Phoenix comes across a white hunter carrying a gun (Welty, 460). This episode underlines the racial undertones that existed in the world and the disdain with which the white people held most of the colored people (Marrs, 34). The White hunter’s disdain and disrespect for her are evident, especially when he arrogantly remarks that Phoenix is heading to town merely to see Santa Claus. This is cemented by the nurse who dismisses Phoenix as a charity case, while offering little sympathy for the old woman or her ailing son (Barilleaux, 19).
In addition, scholars have also stated that the main reason behind the use of a Negro or colored woman is that only an uncivilized and relatively unsophisticated woman is worthy of representing the potent forces that inspire such love (Barilleaux, 20).
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